Israeli confessed 'under duress' to killing peace activist

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The Independent Online

An Israeli soldier went on trial yesterday for killing the British peace activist Tom Hurndall, who was fatally wounded 13 months ago while trying to protect Palestinian children.

In a conflict that has seen thousands of deaths but only a handful of soldiers arrested, the trial of Sgt Idier Wahid Taysir for manslaughter was described as an historic one, a result of a campaign for justice by Mr Hurndall's family.

Mr Hurndall, 21, a photojournalism student, was working with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement in Rafah, Gaza, when he was shot in the head by the Israeli soldier as he tried to get trapped Palestinian children out of the line of fire. He died nine months later, after being brought home in a persistent vegetative state.

His parents, Anthony and Jocelyn Hurndall, fought for a new investigation, refusing to accept an initial inquiry which exonerated the army. Eventually in January ­ on the anniversary of their son's death ­ they learnt that a soldier had been charged with intent to cause injury, which was later upgraded to manslaughter.

Yesterday at a military court in a desert base in southern Israel,Ilan Bombach, a defence lawyer, requested that the judges ignore a confession by Sgt Taysir, insisting it was "given under pressure". Sgt Taysir is facing one count of manslaughter, two counts of obstruction of justice, one of submitting false testimony, one of obtaining false testimony and one of unbecoming behaviour. But Mr Hurndall's family, which insists there is "overwhelming evidence" that Tom was deliberately killed, said they would not be satisfied until the charge is murder. Their lawyers made representations to the Supreme Court yesterday for the Israeli army to release details of its military investigation.

The family, which was only given a three-page summary, believe the full evidence will support its case for a murder charge and perhaps reveal a widespread culture within the Israeli Defence Force.

Lawyers for Sgt Taysir, who admitted shooting at Mr Hurndall "as a deterrent" even though the student was unarmed, insisted that their client was being "hung out to dry" and was "following orders". The trial was adjourned until 19 May.

Mrs Hurndall said outside court: "I accept that to have got this far is a significant achievement, indeed an historic one. There have been no trials of this magnitude relating to killings in the occupied territories in the three years since the intifada, which has seen over 3,000 innocent non-combatants killed and over 40,000 seriously injured in the region. I am committed to getting to the truth about the killing of my son. There are questions that need to be answered as to whether there are policy issues which led to Tom's death. Indeed it is likely that there are others who share responsibility."

¿ The UN said yesterday that Israel had left 1,100 Palestinians homeless in the Gaza Strip this month, by destroying 131 homes. It called the first 10 days of May "one of the most intense periods of destruction by the Israeli military". More than 18,000 Palestinians have been made homeless since the intifada began in September 2000.